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Na Wai ‘Eha ruling should promote affordable housing

OUR COUNTY

In the Hawaiian language, the word for fresh water is “wai.” The word for wealth is “waiwai.” This Hawaiian worldview conveys that to have water is to be prosperous. This concept fueled much of the passion behind the contested case of Na Wai ‘Eha for nearly 20 years.

During the last week of June, the Hawaii State Commission on Water Resource Management issued the most comprehensive ruling on water rights in Hawaii’s history. The commission’s decision and order for Na Wai ‘Eha (Maui’s four waters), reaffirmed the rights of traditional farmers, agricultural enterprises and wildlife that rely on stream habitats. Their ruling is historic in its regard for nature and the customary cultural practices of Hawaiians, including taro cultivation.

The commission’s order also reestablished the County of Maui Department of Water Supply’s existing use permit for 1.784 million gallons of water per day and granted a new use permit for 1.416 million gallons per day.

After receiving this excellent news, I considered Maui County’s needs and priorities as we step up our post-pandemic return to normalcy. I believe working families should be the first beneficiaries of this water allocation, so I’ve decided to reserve the balance of available water, allocated to our Department of Water, for the construction of “right-priced” housing in communities served by the Central Maui Water System. Maui County can help incentivize development of attainable workforce housing for purchase and affordable rental units.

To build these kinds of housing projects, water availability is often a limiting issue. If water is not readily available, most projects will not be eligible for federal or state government subsidies. Such planned developments are also heavily regulated and subject to strict deadlines, so the certainty of a sufficient water supply can reduce risk for developers, remove obstacles for permitting and expedite construction.

The county’s Iao Water Treatment plant can easily process 3.2 million gallons of water each day, but even with this newly allocated water, it’s always smart to conserve water. We live on islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We rely on our environment to produce the fresh water we need. Importing water from a neighboring state is not an option. Even moving water from one source to another on island is virtually impossible.

Residents may not realize that the island of Maui relies on a patchwork of unconnected systems to fulfill our water needs. The County of Maui operates the Central Maui Water System that serves the central isthmus and Kihei to Paia; Upcountry is served by three different systems: Upper Kula, Lower Kula and Makawao. Most of the residents between Puamana to Napili get their water through the Lahaina System. In East Maui, the Hana System serves Hana, Hamoa and Wakiu. And the county operates different systems in Honokohau, Keanae and Nahiki. Other communities are served by private water systems.

Depending upon where we live, our water may flow from aquifers, wells, streams and/or surface water. Rainfall-dependent Upcountry Maui is usually the first community to experience the effects of drought. Late last month, a Stage 1 water shortage was declared for Upcountry Maui, during which our Water Department prohibits using water for nonessential purposes like watering lawns and washing cars.

With the unpredictability of climate change, everyone in Maui County should get into the habit of conserving water. Simple steps everyone can take include taking shorter showers, turning off the tap while brushing teeth, washing only full loads of laundry and saving cool water that runs while waiting for water to warm up for your shower. Capture it in 10-gallon buckets and use it for cooking and watering plants. These are just a few suggestions.

As my parents taught me, “a penny saved is a penny earned.” If water is indeed wealth, the water we save today may be the water we need tomorrow.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column alternates with the “Council’s 3 Minutes” on Saturdays.

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